Home  »  Trauma Recovery is Possible with Angela Ashawasegai

Trauma Recovery is Possible with Angela Ashawasegai

Feb 27, 2024

A text based logo for International Women's Month - written in black over a white background. This featured story is brought to you by the Power of Why Podcast in collaboration with Invest Ottawa, with critical support from BDC Capital’s Thrive Venture Fund, the Title Sponsor of International Women’s Month 2024.

We teamed up to produce this special series to celebrate women leading in Ottawa for International Women’s Month and shine the spotlight on our IWW 2024 featured leaders to unpack their passion and purpose.

Five inspirational leaders are selected each year to represent International Women’s Month. They are role models who significantly impact our economy, community and society and embody the spirit, goals and values of IWM.  

“Never give up on yourself” –  

These were the words Angela Ashawasegai repeated to herself for years. They became her mantra, helping her find and build her inner strength. 

Angela was removed from her mother at birth and was placed into the child welfare system. Throughout her tumultuous childhood, she had no safe place to call home. From surviving abuse and homelessness, Angela emerged as her hero, crediting her survival to education, spirituality, and art. 

Today, Angela leverages her decades of training and expertise to help others empower themselves. She consults with organizations on workplace wellness, puts pen to paper on her forthcoming book, and coaches individuals on overcoming their trauma.  

Here is how she identified her inner strength and resilience in adversity. 

This episode is for you if: 

  • You want to reclaim your identity in the face of adversity. 
  • You’re looking for practical insights to navigate your own healing journey and empower others in their journey. 
  • You want to explore how creativity can be a tool for resilience. 

Looking for a specific gem? 

[3:40] Angela was removed from her birth mother at birth and placed in the child welfare system. 

[4:29] Angela escaped an abusive home at age 16. 

[5:30] Didn’t know that she was part of the Sixties Scoop until her 40s. 

[7:10] Realized that she needed more education when she didn’t have viable employment prospects. 

[7:39] Graduated high school at age 19. 

[7:40] Still dealing with adversity, homelessness, living out of garbage bags, house surfing. 

[8:00] Angela’s high school guidance counselor helped her get her Indian status card. 

[9:31] Her first steps toward self-empowerment were through education. 

[10:00] Asking “What happened to you?” vs. “What is wrong with you?” 

[12:17] Stability and processing trauma. 

[16:44] Angela leaned into journaling without mental health supports. 

[20:14] Angela was truly never alone. 

[24:33] The power of art and self-expression for finding your voice (and using it). 

[32:40] The lifestyle and life that you want is within your reach. 

[34:20] There is a massive need for mental health care services for Indigenous people 

[38:00] The process of writing a memoir Lost In-between Two Worlds: A Sixties Scoop Survivor’s Search for Belonging. 

[45:10] There are many pathways to heal. 

[47:00] Let’s normalize mental health. 

People and Resources Mentioned in This Episode 

Sixties Scoop – Indigenous Foundations 

Trauma-informed approach to care 

All My Relations 

Connect with Angela 

On LinkedIn

Website – coming soon. 

Connect with BDC 

LinkedIn – BDC Capital (Canada) 

Twitter – @bdc_capital 

Tune in to the podcast or take the time to dive into the article found below.

Regardless of the format, great content is headed your way!

Naomi Haile: What is your origin story? What was your journey to where you are today? 

Angela Ashawasegai: I am from Henvey First Inlet First Nation. I was removed from my birth mother at birth, and I was placed into the child welfare system. I was adopted at age one into a non-Indigenous Euro-Canadian family. And in that family, unfortunately, something beyond my control happened to me. As young as I can remember, I was being abused physically, mentally, spiritually. I endured all of that, and I escaped that abusive home at age 16. 

It was like jumping from the fire into another frying pan when I came out of that situation. The child welfare system did not acknowledge that I had been abused. I was in a state of shock. At that time, my mind had shut out a lot of what had happened to me, and I was removing myself from an unhealthy environment and then putting myself into the real world so suddenly. 

And then, I didn’t even know that I was a victim of child abuse. I didn’t know I was part of the Sixties Scoop until my 40s. The child welfare system grossly neglected me. They didn’t give me access to mental health care services. No one asked me the question, “What happened to you”? And even if they did ask me what happened, I probably wouldn’t have had the best answers because, like I said, the mind shuts down. When you’re living through trauma, your mind shuts down. 

Then, I aged out of the child welfare system at age 17. There I was, mentally ill. I didn’t know what had happened to me, and I was out on my own without any education or mental health care. I was left to fend for myself. 

At some point, I was struggling with poverty, I was working menial jobs, and I struggled with employment opportunities. And no wonder – I was a high school dropout, so I had nothing to offer. And I fell into the idea that I need more education because when I looked at my resume, it was clear, “There’s nothing on this [resume]. No wonder nobody wants to hire me. There are no credentials. I’m a high school dropout. 

I decided to go back to school. When I was 19, I graduated from high school. But I was still dealing with a lot of social issues like adversity and homelessness; I was couch surfing and living out of garbage bags; I was living in homeless shelters; it was really stressful. 

One of the greatest things that happened to me in high school was meeting a guidance counselor who got me my Indian status card. He told me what the benefits of the status card were when I was in high school. He said, “You’re going to get your medical prescriptions paid for, you’re going to be able to go to post-secondary school…” 

And that was the catalyst for me. Gaining self-empowerment, believe it or not, was through my status card. And because I was dealing with homelessness, my living allowance allowed me to have a roof over my head, and I could feed myself with the allowance; I could buy myself food, and I didn’t have to worry about a home anymore. I went to college after high school, which allowed me to have a bit of stability.  

“Education was a tool of self-empowerment in my life. That’s what got me out of despair. I was able to take the first steps of self-empowerment through education. That was the origin of what got me to where I am today.” 

Naomi Haile: You said something so subtle. That “No one asked what happened to me.” That question takes a trauma-informed approach, right? Asking, “What happened to you?” instead of asking, “What is wrong with you?” 

Naomi Haile: You said something so subtle. That “No one asked what happened to me.” That question takes a trauma-informed approach, right? Asking, “What happened to you?” instead of asking, “What is wrong with you?” 

Angela Ashawasegai: You’re absolutely. You’ve hit the nail. And that needed to happen to me when I was 16 years old. And that never occurred to me. It was a complete oversight on the part of the mental health care system because I was placed into a psychiatric evaluation for 30 days, and not a single person sat with me and said, “Angela, what happened to you?” I was released back into the world again after 30 days. And it was back to business as usual, me struggling in silence with my mental health challenges. 

Naomi Haile: How did you get to a place of stability? And what came from finding stability as well? 

Angela Ashawasegai: That is a fundamental question. Stability is one of the first steps in recovering from trauma. Suppose you don’t have stability, which is what I was dealing with a lot throughout my life off and on. When you’re busy dealing with social issues of homelessness – that’s not stability. If you can’t feed yourself, that’s not stability. 

“If you don’t have a stable home, you’re not in the mindset of being able to work on yourself because you’re too busy and stuck in survival mode. And that’s what I’m speaking to. It’s living in survival mode versus stability. What you need is to have stability first before you can begin the second phase of recovery, which is processing trauma.” 

When I started processing trauma in my 20s, and that happened once I found stability when I moved to Ottawa. I had a beautiful relationship with someone financially stable. We lived in a townhome, and I decided I was ready for college. But unfortunately, my mental health issues were taking control of me. And I had to drop out of school because my mental health was weak at the time. This is how I’ve come to know what is needed to heal, by lived experience. And then what happened is that I started having nightmares. My brain asked, “You’re not in survival mode anymore? Well, now you can work on yourself.” 

And at that time, little did I know that trauma is your helper. 

Your trauma is trying to get your attention when you are having nightmares and flashbacks. When you have depression, when you’re having anxiety. Those are all post-trauma symptoms: your body or mind is telling you to pay attention. I have something to say to you. It’s all about the wisdom and the knowledge that trauma carries. Once you start to be more curious about the trauma, you need to build yourself up as an observer of the trauma and begin to speak to what you’re experiencing.  

When I was having nightmares, it drove me to suicide ideation, where I didn’t want to live anymore because the quality of my life was so poor, and I was experiencing sleep deprivation. And my daily life was very stressful, too. But I didn’t know that trauma was my helper at that time. And I nearly died as a result of that. And it was over the years that I started understanding that there were patterns in these dreams. These animals kept coming into my dreams, trying to tell me something. So then I began to study animal spiritual totems linked to my culture and learned their purpose. And knowing what their medicine is. 

I used to write these dreams. They were so powerful I had to write them down. And so I started journaling, which was another therapeutic process. Because I didn’t have any mental health support, I leaned into journaling and learning what these dreams were about. 

I learned that these animals were my helpers. In my daily life, I started learning how to communicate with animals because they were communicating with me. And I started realizing that I have a connection to the animal world. In my culture, we believe in All My Relations. I finally understood and realized I am connected to the animal world. I am connected to the land. I am connected to the earth, to the moon, to everything. And that’s why we say All My Relations. I felt very close to the ancestors. 

Naomi Haile: Right now, you’re in a position where you now help other people through their recovery journey. I can only imagine how difficult that was, especially when you didn’t have the language for what you were going through. But you talked about your helpers and that you genuinely were not alone. You had a lot around you. 

Angela Ashawasegai: Yes, I could say that now. As I was navigating this journey, at no point did I feel that humanity supported me. I felt that my life didn’t matter. That was the biggest thing I had to grasp – that I wasn’t alone. I was able to tap into the spirit world through my spirituality and being able to connect with the animal world and how they helped me to process trauma. 

Suppose people want to start working with their dreams. I have the skills to help people to process trauma through recurring nightmares or dreams. I’m able to work with people with forward-moving questions. And how trauma has affected them on a conscious level and an unconscious level. In the last ten years, I realized that I was never alone. One of the lessons that I learned from adversity is that it can make you stronger. As I went through the journey, I never saw it that way. You only see it after you go through it. When you’re in the midst of it, you think, “Oh my life, it’s worthless. I’m worthless.” I’m sure many people can relate to that because we all deal with that side of ourselves, with the inner critic always trying to stop us. But our inner critic is there to protect us. And so we must learn to make friends with our inner critic. 

I just had to keep going at every stage of my life. Yes, I’ve had many setbacks. Yes, I’ve had many doubts. Yes, I’ve had many moments on this entrepreneurial journey of feeling like, why am I doing this? Where I feel like I have impostor syndrome, that I’m a fraud. Because I’m still processing trauma, I will probably be processing it for the rest of my life. But it’s okay. That’s fine. 

Deal with what’s going on in your life at that moment. You have to keep moving forward. Adversity does make you stronger. And that’s what it did for me. It started when I was 17 and aged out of care. I made a choice: either I’m going to give up and live on the streets, or I’m going to go to school and try to get better chances at employment. 

Everything is self-empowerment. It’s really about the choices you make and the actions that you take to keep moving forward. No one will save you because that was one of the things I was waiting for. Especially in my youth, I was waiting to be saved. I was waiting for someone to rescue me. And when I got out of that home, no one told me, “Angela, your nightmare is over. No one’s ever gonna hurt you again”. I never heard those words. 

“I had to learn to become my own hero.” 

Naomi Haile: You’re also an artist and a poet. How have art and self-expression helped you on your journey? 

Angela Ashawasegai: I began to find self-expression. In 2010, I started to take on a journey of advocacy for the Sixties Scoop. At that time, a class action lawsuit was taking place. I became involved in that, and I started to speak out about the Sixties Scoop and its impacts on my life, as well as being able to ask for social justice. That is the beginning of me finding my voice. In my childhood, I was completely shut down; I didn’t have a voice. At that time, I didn’t realize I needed a voice. Nobody was advocating for me. 

It was a pivotal moment when I started to find my voice. And the other way that I found self-expression was through writing; I have always loved writing. So, I began to write a blog because I had a setback in my mental health in 2009. I experienced a mental breakdown because I got tired of the toxic work culture. I recognized that I needed to change my mindset and that it wouldn’t help me to feel sorry for myself. I’m sure people can understand that. 

I found writing to be cathartic. Some of my poetry has been published, which was wonderful for me to express myself. 

For instance, I used to do self-harm, and I had scars all over my wrists, and I always had such shame about them. Until I realized that it wasn’t my fault; I didn’t ask to be part of the Sixties Scoop. I didn’t ask to go through a system that neglected my care. So, I wrote a poem about my scars. And I really turned it around, and I saw that instead of owning all the shame, I put the shame where it belonged. And I said, “Shame on Canada, shame on you for taking me away from my culture – away from everything. And the scars are the scars that you’ve done to me. This pain that I was feeling belongs to you, Canada. These scars belong to you, not to me”. That was the kind of poetry that was coming out with me. It was another way of processing trauma. It was finding my voice and reclaiming it again. 

 Naomi Haile: The first thing that comes to mind is that art is a connective tissue between people. There’s also a lot of courage in sharing your art. How important is your environment and what do you choose to surround yourself with? How does your environment influence how you perceive reality? 

Angela Ashawasegai: Sometimes, people can carry trauma unconsciously. They’re not even aware of it. Awareness has a lot to do with beginning to work with trauma. There needs to be an acknowledgment that something needs to change. 

The environment that we put ourselves in can be detrimental to our mental health, or it could be it could support our journey. If you’re living in a place where you don’t have stability or not enough income, it’s tough to begin processing trauma because you’re living in survival mode. 

Surround yourself with things that are uplifting and environments that are clutter-free. Have you ever seen the Netflix series “Queer Eye”? That’s a great example because they go into people’s lives and change their environment. 

“Make your living space healthy and surround yourself with beauty – whatever beauty means to you.” 

It could be the color you like, it could be the type of furniture you have. It’s about the life and lifestyle that you want to live. It’s in your hands. It’s in your power. Just watch a few episodes of “Queer Eye”; it will give you a starting point. It shows how your environment is critical to your recovery. 

When I work with people, I like to help them with where they’re at. What is your vision? For your wellness, I allow people to find their empowerment. Everyone has their journey; everyone has a unique healing journey. I give respect to people as they’re going through their journey. I’m there to support and help them to find the wisdom and knowledge in their trauma through one-on-one coaching.

I also do workshops for communities, responding to grief and trauma for Indigenous communities and organizations. I have the training to work in that capacity and know that our people are suffering. There’s still a lot of intergenerational trauma that’s happening. There’s such a need for mental health care services for Indigenous people in Canada. And that was why I became a social entrepreneur. It’s because I realized that “I did it!” I came out on the other side. And if I can do it, so can you; you can do it. I wanted to inspire hope. It’s essential to keep getting back up again. I would carry on where I left off and keep on going.  

Naomi Haile: That’s so that’s so layered. And even sharing your story is a testament of hope. I keep using the word power-power-power because when you’ve found power in who you are at your core, you are reconnected to your most authentic and highest self. Dr. Gabor Maté talks a lot about a disconnection from self as being the root of stress, inflammation, and various health disorders that we, as people, face. And so when you talk about connecting to your culture, your spirituality, and yourself, there’s so much meaning in that. 

Could you talk about your journey writing your forthcoming book? Why was it important for you to get this down on paper and share it with the world? 

Angela Ashawasegai: Thanks for asking that. One of the reasons why I wanted to tell my story was because I couldn’t believe what happened to me. I wanted to write my story after I escaped that home. I knew I had a story to tell, but I didn’t know how to be a writer at that time. So it took me until I went to university in my 40s – that was my whole objective: I will learn how to write a book when I go to university. And that didn’t happen either. 

Unfortunately, I did learn a lot about the history of colonialism and what had happened to my birth family, mys, elves included. I have no regrets. There are no regrets about education. Education is a very powerful tool for self-empowerment. And I’m always grateful for my education. I’m always in school, and I’m constantly training. We must stay on top of the ever-changing evolution of mental health care and self-care. 

I started writing it about ten years ago. Writing that story took a long time because it was so darn triggering… the emotions that came up. And sometimes, I would either get writer’s block or walk away because I needed to hold space for myself. And sometimes that space looked like weeks, months, years. That’s how long I needed to write this book.  

One of the things that I just realized is that I had become my hero in unpacking the historical trauma that had happened to me. I had these ‘aha moments,’ recognizing that what I had achieved was impossible. I’m writing about the four different pillars and exactly how those pillars helped me. My book is “Lost In-between Two Worlds: A Sixties Scoop Survivor’s Search for Belonging.” My current objective is to complete writing that book; it will be a success story. And I’m sure other Sixties Scoop survivors will want to read this. 

The first part will be challenging to write because it’s an explicit story about what exactly happened to me and how I survived. The rest is the empowerment journey. So, people have insights into how I was able to navigate my healing journey. But like I said, I didn’t do it alone. I was never alone. I had my ancestors, and I had my culture. Reconnecting with our culture is what Sixties Scoop survivors are looking for today–  a sense of belonging. Nobody was there to help Sixties Scoop survivors transition back into knowing who we are.  

Last year, I got this pendant from a garage sale. And it was a compelling, meaningful experience because there was a Thunderbird symbol on it. I didn’t know what that meant. But I recognize that it brought me back to a time in my adoptive home, where I was given two pendants from a teacher who was there to support me. She gave me these necklaces, and I was conflicted because I knew my family wouldn’t allow this. 

I came home after school one day, and my pendants were gone. They had disappeared. And I know what happened to them. It was really sad. Because I know my teacher had been trying to instill pride in my culture. She was teaching us about Native history. And I was excited about what I was learning. Unfortunately, my family was not was not happy about that. So when my mother took away those pendants, it absolutely devastated me. So when I found this pendant a year ago, it brought me back to that moment where I had lost my culture, and I felt the pain of it. And I learned the symbol of this pendant. It was the Thunderbird, which represents power and strength. And I started wearing the pendant proudly. And I recognized that I was taking back my culture and had no more shame. I was no longer ashamed of my culture and identity. Because that’s what the Sixties Scoop had done to me, it almost killed the Indian in me. But to have this pendant was the first step to realizing that I was taking back my culture. Just a week ago, I made my very first pair of moccasins. And again, that was the big moment in my life – I realized I’m walking in my culture now that I’ve got my moccasins. 

“Everything that happened to me happened. It doesn’t define me anymore. I’m living my truth. I am doing all that I can to make a social change.” 

I’m doing everything I can to bring meaning to my life now. I can help others to achieve that as well. That’s why I want to be a social entrepreneur. 

I want to help others to know that trauma recovery is possible. And that there are many different pathways for wellness. There are many pathways for healing trauma. 

It is never too late to go back to school. It is never too late to start a healing journey.  

You can begin that journey today and allow yourself to be okay with where you are. Because where you are is okay. 

Naomi Haile: Thank you, Angela. As we wrap up, what are your hopes for the future – personally and with your work at Indigenous Wellness Coaching? 

Angela Ashawasegai: What I see for the future is that I’m hoping to make a social change and help others understand and make real the possibilities for them to heal their lives. There’s hope, and they are more than what happened to them. You are more than your trauma. I want to make this world a better place by sharing what the experience has been like for me. You have to empower yourself. That’s where it all begins. That’s what I’ve done; if I can, so can others. 

And I’m speaking to the non-Indigenous populations as well. It doesn’t matter what race you’re from; trauma is prevalent in every nation. 

We need to normalize mental health because there’s still this stigma of mental illness. One of the biggest challenges I had to go through was self-stigmatization, being ashamed of my mental health when it wasn’t even my fault. And so, like Gabor Maté, we need more compassion for ourselves and each other. To start those conversations around mental health, we first have to have compassion for ourselves and others to be able to carry on. I could be an extension of Gabor Maté for Indigenous people and bring that awareness – that we are strong people. We are still here, and many of our people are very strong. We are getting to a point where we are reclaiming our power and self-governance. 

My contribution is definitely around mental health and normalizing. That is what I want to do with this book. There’s a lot that needs to be reformed in the child welfare system, and I’ve witnessed it firsthand as a trauma coach. I’ve been helping youth who have gone through and those who are going through what I went through, and the healthcare system is not acknowledging or taking their claims seriously. I’ve seen it, and I’ve witnessed it. And when I was working with Indigenous youth in 2022/2023, I couldn’t believe this was still happening. 

There’s a lot of room for calls to action to reform the child welfare system. That needs to happen. If I can be a voice for that, I will share my story to bring about change in the child welfare system. It needs to change now. We need to have a better future for our youth. 

Naomi Haile: you. Thank you, Angela. Thank you for using your voice for positive impact and calling for reform. What is the best place for people to connect with you and support your work? 

Angela Ashawasegai: You can reach me through LinkedIn at Angela Ashawasegai. And on there is the platform of my services. You can also contact me through my Facebook page, Indigenous Wellness Coaching. Finally, I will have my website up by the end of April. 

Naomi Haile: Angela, thank you. I appreciate your time. 

A profile picture of smiling Naomi Haile, Talent Strategy Consultant & Podcast Host - who's standing in front of a light blue background.

Naomi Haile, Talent Strategy Consultant & Podcast Host

A human capital professional and inclusion strategy expert, Naomi Haile understands people. With 7+ years of experience spanning international tax compliance at the Canadian federal government and consulting at specialized boutique firms, Naomi leverages data about how people interact with systems and filters them through her unique lens to build responsible organizations. Using innovative design thinking strategies, she works with executives and their high-performing teams to co-create sustainable solutions for even the most complex of human capital challenges.

Currently, she is a Senior Talent Strategist, Office of the CEO, at WritersBlok, a white-glove ghostwriting agency that helps business leaders, celebrities, executives, politicians, and athletes turn their personal stories into brand assets. In addition to her consulting work, Naomi is the producer and host of the rising Power of Why Podcast (which boasts over 30K downloads and 200 active monthly listeners), where she interviews top global and local industry leaders. Most notably, her recent interview with Netflix’s Chief of Human Resources Officer was featured on Business Insider.

An avid traveler, Naomi has explored over 25 cities and 11 countries, and loves to connect with new cultures through her passion for food. When she’s not monitoring her investment watchlists, she is boxing or enjoying a Broadway show.


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